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Sunday, August 10, 2008

African 'tree of life' recast as European superfruit

FANDENE, Senegal (AFP) — In Senegal, villagers have always known about the health benefits of baobab fruit, which only now have been discovered by Europe in what could spell magic for localities like Fandene.

The ancient, hardy species also known as the "tree of life" is scattered across the African savannah, some said to date back to the time of Christ.

Locals use nearly every part of the tree, whose processed fruit was approved for European import last month.

"You use the monkey bread fruit if you have a belly ache," said farmer Aloyse Tine, using the local name for baobab fruit. "If you're tired you eat the leaves, they are good for you."

The seeds can be pressed to extract oil used for cooking and the bark can be used to make ropes. In the past, the hollow bark was also used to bury "griots", a special West African cast of poets, musicians and sorcerers.

Farmer Tine, like others, used to lug his fruit to sell in the market in the nearby town of Thies.

Three years ago, he started selling instead to the Baobab Fruit Company, a Senegalese firm run by three Italians. It is the country's only industrialised producer of dried baobab fruit pulp, which it exports for use in cosmetics and certain dietary supplements.

The new income has already made changes. It "allows me to send my kids to school," he said.

Enter PhytoTrade Africa, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on developing fair trade and environmentally sustainable natural products.

Sensing potential, it launched in 2006 the process that would open European Union markets to this nutritious African oddity. Under EU rules, any "novel" food -- one not commonly consumed in Europe before 1997 -- requires special approval for use in the 27-member bloc.

"Approval for the baobab is fantastic news for Africa," said PhytoTrade's Cyril Lombard after the EU decision.

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